This summer, working with the Forest Service in South Central Appalachia, I had several first-hand experiences with a river of death, as I talked to Southern Men in Southern Woods. “Not hard to see some things in these parts,” a wiry man smoking a cigarette tells me, as I pick up rocks from the Rocky Fork. “Nolochucky — that means river of death, I had eight friends who got SUCKED IN there. I swear to God, my uncle said it’s red with blood.” I looked down; I was standing in a dark clump of muck at the edge of a pool. The Rocky Fork flows through this, depositing more and more muck. Later that night, I found the muck had soaked into my socks, leaving my feet wrinkled, with black lines in the furrows. Later, by Watauga Lake, someone asked me, “Y’all ever been to the Green Hole? They say there’s no bottom.” The Green Hole was a pool at the bottom of a waterfall, dark green and murky. As I walked around, picking up trash, the roar of the falling water was omnipresent. While the land was surely contaminated with the deaths and evil contained within history (as well as the psychically anodyne chip wrappers and plastic bottles), it remained achingly beautiful.
After the election, one of the countless think-pieces that sprung up featured this quote, by William S. Burroughs, “America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil. Before the settlers, before the Indians … the evil is there … waiting.” At the time, this, to me, was an extremely compelling quote. It was easy to see the events as primordial evil springing up, the election the cause of a miasma seeping through the cracks of the Rockies, Ozarks and Appalachians. Additionally, my reading coincided with my cleaning of our house’s old and dirty floor. As the mop water grew darker and darker, I imagined this dark liquid seeping through our land, poisoning all that it touched.
At the same time, Edgar Welch was driving to Washington, D.C. with a gun, ready to look for secret torture + pedophilia chambers in Comet Ping Pong. In an interview with The New York Times, he said he had the “impression something nefarious was happening,” an impression based on an insane conspiracy theory predicated on the notion that ordering “cheese” and “sauce” meant buying girls and boys. News coverage of Welch’s arrest (and failure to free any “sauce”) framed it as a delusion caused by what they termed “fake news.” To me, however, it seems rather techno-deterministic to say the internet was directly responsible. In Alan Moore’s classic exploration of American myths and legends, “Swamp Thing,” the evil sorcerer Anton Arcane forms a business called “Blackriver Recorporations.” As the reader sees waves of evil extending from “Blackriver.” Moore writes that “beneath the earth there are muffled, booming voices, beneath the ocean there are terrible lights … and the ripples widen across America, shimmering like liquid chromium through the very darkest minds.” The tendency to see these lines of evil running across our land, the dark, poisonous land of Burroughs, is an integral part of the American mythos.
It is easy (and not inaccurate) to view our whole land like Burroughs did — old, dirty and evil. On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, as our Empire of Blood prepares to make tragedy farce again, we are forced to look out at our Black Rivers and at their stench, muck and beauty. In his poem “This Compost,” Whitman asks the Earth:
Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations?
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day, or perhaps I am deceiv’d,
I will run a furrow with my plough, I will press my spade through the sod and turn it up underneath,
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.
Like Whitman, it is hard for me to take the beauty of the land at face value, considering the many sins of our nation. Underneath Whitman’s Earth are the stains of history, the evils of Empire. The Earth, however, hides this almost perfectly, just as the rot of compost gives way to a garden’s bounty of vegetal life. The fermentation of the compost, then, transforms the rot of history into newly beautiful land. Instead of spreading evil across the land, the black muck is instead the vehicle for the transformation of this evil. Rot and muck stinks and stains the atmosphere, as I found out opening my house’s fridge to discover the stench of spoilage. When used as compost, however, this rot can be transformed, turned into fuel for change. Sandor Ellix Katz, a fermentation theorist, writes that “Your life and my life and everyone’s lives and deaths are part of the endless biological cycle of life and death and fermentation … envision yourself as an agent for change, creating agitation, releasing bubbles of transformation into the social order.” Once we recognize and spot our Black Rivers, we can take a pitchfork and start scooping out the brown matter, placing it into our bins along with our scraps. After we mix it all together, bacteria starts to break down the brown and green matter, turning it into humus, ready to be scattered, ready to grow. Back home, our compost pot is full, smelling of decomposition. I carry it out to the backyard, throw it into the bin. I take my pitchfork and turn the compost, mixing the different stages of decomposition, distributing the nitrogen evenly throughout the bin. It smells like life.